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Democrats' Inside Man Steps Into Spotlight

By Brigid Schulte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 27, 2009

All his life, Brian Moran has been the dutiful son. The youngest of seven in a sprawling, working-class Irish Catholic family in the Boston area, he was the one who was sent, uncomplaining, to spend the summer in a trailer with a disagreeable aunt in the remote Maine woods when he was 9. He studied economics instead of history at the request of his mother. He left college his junior year to move home to care for his dying father.

For 13 years, Moran was the go-to guy, the water carrier for the Democrats, the minority party in the Virginia House of Delegates. If a Republican got up to insult then-Gov. Mark Warner or Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, Moran, in an increasing crescendo, was the one who jumped to the microphone in protest. If a Republican signaled a willingness to negotiate, Moran was often the one called in to hammer out a deal, once at a diner over beers with the details spelled out on a bar napkin. Moran was the one who knew which delegate needed what and how to knit together the unruly votes to pass legislation, including a landmark increase in education spending in 2004.

For eight years, as Democratic caucus chair in the House of Delegates, he put 200,000 miles on his gold Toyota Highlander, traveling the state recruiting candidates, raising money, shaking hands at countless local gatherings, all with the aim of recapturing a Democratic majority in the House. His efforts netted 13 new Democratic seats, four seats shy of a majority, and some in areas so conservative that skeptics had told him he was crazy to try.

For the past two years, he has made the same dutiful circuit, this time to convince people that he should be the next governor of Virginia. He has patiently explained how he was instrumental in passing laws to protect children from online sexual predators and in making third-time drunk driving offenses a felony. He carefully moderated his voting record in the House and took the ribbings of his colleagues, who shouted "Statewaaaahde!" when he carried bills to, for instance, provide $3 million for a film to be set in Big Stone Gap (about 500 miles from his Northern Virginia district).

He has foregone vacations and instead taken his family on what it calls "work-cations" to such places as Breaks Park on Virginia's Kentucky border so he can greet the party faithful and spend time with his family. He quit his law practice in Alexandria and resigned from the House of Delegates to devote himself full time to the effort.

And now, after all those years of hard work, with a hotly contested three-way Democratic primary less than two weeks away, Brian Moran is finding that a whole bunch of voters still don't have any idea who he is.

On a recent Thursday, Moran was the only candidate invited to address African American ministers at the Virginia Baptist State Convention in Chesapeake. As the ministers and Moran prepared to file into the main hall, Moran began introducing himself.

"You Clinton's guy?" one minister asked

"No, that's the other guy," Moran said.

"What's his name?"

"I'm not telling," Moran replied, reddening and laughing, and refusing to give up the name of Terry McAuliffe, the former Democratic National Committee chairman, newcomer to Virginia politics and surprise candidate who has out-raised, out-spent and sought to out-campaign Moran and state Sen. Creigh Deeds (Bath).

It is the curse of the inside man. Brian Moran, 49, has toiled the old-school way in the political vineyard. He has learned the ropes, cut the deals and paid his dues. His Web site is filled with the fruits of his labor: a long list of endorsements by local officials, such as the sheriff of Pulaski County and the city of Bristol's commissioner of the revenue, as well as bigger names such as Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.), his older brother, and Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy (D-R.I.). But at a time of economic crisis, when voters have shown a clear preference for the outsider, can the inside man prevail?

"Voters don't know who the hell I am," Moran lamented over spaghetti later that night, when he, as always, cleaned his plate. "And I don't have the money to tell them." Moran was the last candidate to air TV ads.

Out on the stump, he often reels through his plans. There's the "Green Virginia" plan promoting alternative energy, and his "Healthy Virginia" plan to ensure that all children have health care, and his "Smart Virginia" plan to lower class sizes. What he has had difficulty doing is talking about himself. In the stoic Irish Catholic culture, that's just not something you do.

But he's trying. He knows that in a race in which all three candidates hold similar positions, personal narrative could be the only way to distinguish himself. So at a recent appearance at a retirement community in Springfield, he ditched his prepared speech on his "Silver Plan" for the elderly and instead talked about his grandparents.

John Francis Xavier Moran met Agnes Dowd on a ship sailing from Ireland to America. They settled in Boston, where Brian Moran's grandfather began pulling coal carts and early on became involved in Boston politics.

One of Moran's earliest childhood memories is knocking on doors for local Democratic candidates with his father, a Roosevelt Democrat who once ran for school board. The dinner table was always a time to discuss politics and news. "I don't know life without public service," Moran said. "There was always a sense of obligation to be engaged."

At 9, Moran marched 20 miles with his sister Mary to protest hunger. At 13, he took the train to Washington to watch the Watergate hearings. After graduating from community college, he coached youth sports and ran for the local board of recreation. After law school at Catholic University, he became involved in Alexandria politics and charities. He took his wife, Karyn, to a City Council meeting for their first date.

While he was growing up, the family never had much. When his father was laid off from a well-paying job as a sales rep for a brewery, he found lower-paying work as a probation officer. Moran grew up drinking powdered milk and wearing Goodwill hand-me-downs. He took on a paper route, bagged groceries and worked the graveyard shift at a gas station.

Being the youngest taught him to watch, listen and learn, his sister Mary Siudut said. "He was the mediator of the family," she said.

Those abilities served him in cutting deals in the House, colleagues said. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax) likens their relationship to the Looney Tunes cartoon of the sheepdog and coyote. "They'd be talking to each other on the way to work. 'Hey, Ralph.' 'Hey, Sam.' They clock in, beat the crap out of each other, then they clock out and walk home arm in arm," Albo said. "He's actually a cool dude."

Moran does not have the larger-than-life persona of his brother Jim. He does not always seek the spotlight; when Queen Elizabeth II's visit to Jamestown coincided with his son's "Star Wars" birthday party, Moran kept his promise to his son to dress up as Darth Vader.

In every political move, friends say, there's usually been a vacuum to be filled, and he has been "nudged" to take it. "Self-promotion doesn't come naturally to Brian," said his longtime friend Shawn McLaughlin, a financial adviser in Alexandria. "And I say that as a compliment."

Mark Warner suggested that Moran run for the House of Delegates in 1995 after an incumbent retired. Moran stepped in to chair the Democratic caucus in 2001 when no one else wanted the job: Democrats had lost an astounding 16 seats, the caucus was tens of thousands of dollars in debt, and the previous chair, Deeds, left to run for Senate. Party leaders came to Moran after the 2005 election to ask him to run in 2009, even though no governor had been elected directly from the General Assembly since 1953.

But now he's all in. "You have to really want this," Moran said during the three-hour drive on Interstates 95 and 64 from Springfield to Chesapeake the other day, with the Red Sox game playing on the radio and with fresh shirts and undecided-voter lists lying atop a child's booster seat.

These are roads he knows well. Just as he knows Route 58, which passes the Great Dismal Swamp. And that the Dairy Queen at Exit 214 is a good place to stop for a Blizzard.

"I know there's no such thing as a sure thing," he said between fundraising calls. "You gotta work." He looked out the window as the miles rolled by.

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